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Sunday, July 13, 2008

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Monday  July 7, 2008

I have much work to do today. There was a lively discussion over the weekend, so please read that; I'll have today's mail up sometime later.


Harry Erwin's Letter From England

This letter focusses on higher education in the UK.

Starting in 1971, the London Times published a weekly higher education supplement. This was later spun off as the "Times Higher Education", which is where many academic jobs are advertised. The back cover is 'owned' by sociologist Laurie Taylor, whose satirical column, "The Poppletonian", is the first thing many subscribers read. This week's short pieces include a job listing for a whistleblower detection manager, a crime story about the serial murders of external examiners on campus, a course on followership (as opposed to leadership) being offered by the university Head of Personal Development, and a note that "following last year's unfortunate crowd scenes, the university mace will not this year be carried aloft around the campus by the department gaining the highest number of first-class degrees." A recent letter to the editor indicated that the author liked the Poppletonian pieces and especially appreciated that they were no longer being confined to the back page. This week, too, there were several true stories on the inside pages that are as ridiculous as any Laurie Taylor can dream up.

No good deed goes unpunished (has some similarity to my recent run- in): <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?
sectioncode=26&storycode=402600&c=1 >  <http://tinyurl.com/6q539h>

A proposal to tax people for attending university: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/
story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=402603&c=1 >  <http://tinyurl.com/62wwsu>

Visiting scholars to be limited to three months in the UK: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?
sectioncode=26&storycode=402592&c=1 > <http://tinyurl.com/627fbp

University admissions and the state secondary schools: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?
sectioncode=26&storycode=402599&c=1 > <http://tinyurl.com/5u6gw9>  <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/
-has-to-change-858773.html >  <http://tinyurl.com/5l3otg

Fees and political meddling: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/
story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=402602&c=1 >  <http://tinyurl.com/6lkzhg

Grade inflation: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/
story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=402607&c=1 >  <http://tinyurl.com/6h6m4b>  <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.
asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=402608&c=1 >  <http://tinyurl.com/64zyu7>

Records follow you forever in the UK: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7483856.stm>

What could they be thinking? Mandatory sex lessons at age 4: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7489093.stm

Wheel clampers add £100 fine for swearing. <http://www.independent.co.uk/
163100-swearing-fine-859988.html >  <http://tinyurl.com/63zojs

State support of religious schools: <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/
jewish-enough-loses-school-appeal-859994.html >  <http://tinyurl.com/5nll5n

One aspect of the exam culture--problems with results every year: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7489510.stm>  <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7490216.stm>  <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/
uk/education/ article4270001.ece>  <http://tinyurl.com/6fmjpb

The police can turn on a dime--knife crime replaces terrorism as the top priority: <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/
uk/crime/article4269818.ece>  <http://tinyurl.com/6fs7fr

Zimbabwe vote-rigging film <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7491077.stm

Why many people do not volunteer to work with children now: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/
wrongly-branded-criminals%27%2C-by-CRB-checks.html >  <http://tinyurl.com/638vc6

Pompeii emergency <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7490735.stm

-- Harry Erwin, PhD, Program Leader, MSc Information Systems Security, University of Sunderland. <http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw>  Weblog at: <http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw/blog/index.php>


Always an England?


"The 366-page guide for staff in charge of pre-school children, called Young Children and Racial Justice, warns: "Racist incidents among children in early years settings tend to be around name-calling, casual thoughtless comments and peer group relationships."

It advises nursery teachers to be on the alert for childish abuse such as: "blackie", "Pakis", "those people" or "they smell".

The guide goes on to warn that children might also "react negatively to a culinary tradition other than their own by saying 'yuk'".

Staff are told: "No racist incident should be ignored. When there is a clear racist incident, it is necessary to be specific in condemning the action." "

It appears this is a government supported organization, but not technically an arm of Her Majestie's Government. Of course, I'm not well versed in the subtleties of current British governmental organization by any means. If such a rule had been in effect here, while I was growing up, the first couple of times I was served Chili would have eventually landed me in jail. I was going to speculate about ways children could be perfectly accurate while being incorrect, and what might happen, but in this day and age there are things which cannot be safely said.


Have some tripes.


MND article

Dear Jerry,

In your excellent article on intelligent design in MND you stated:

“The opponents of intelligent design assert [there’s that proof by assertion again] that they have computer programs that do, or soon will, show the steps needed to get from light sensitive spots on skin surfaces to fully developed eyes in bony sockets, and Monte Carlo simulations in which those steps take place.”

I have two comments. First, the computer programs that are said to show the evolution of an eye or other biotic structure all have a major problem. They do not follow the Darwinian process. By definition Darwinian evolution has no foresight and no memory. It cannot select for a trait or characteristic that may become useful in some future generation. It is blind to the future and can only select for what adds to the survival value of the current generation. All the so-called simulations of evolution (Ev, Avida and others) cheat by assuming up front that they are setting out to evolve an eye (or whatever). The need for an eye and the information to select for is already coded in. This isn’t the Darwinian process; it’s really no more than a trial and error approach for creating a design pathway. This is a very fundamental misunderstanding of evolution by natural selection that most people have – apparently even the professionals. These simulations are really no more relevant than Dawkins example of generating the phrase “METHINKSITSLIKEAWEASEL” from any random string of the same length. “METHINKSITSLIKEAWEASEL” is known up-front so it’s ironically an example of intelligent design.

Second, the real problem in evolving vision is not the eye with associated structures and the brain’s processing if images. The problem is getting that famous “light sensitive spot” to begin with. The biochemistry of the Rhodopsin 11-cis-retinal cycle that turns a photon into an electrical current is what needs to be explained first. The cycle is a very involved set of steps that are all needed. If one of the steps is missing you don’t end up with a less efficient creation of electric current from light -- you get none. It is a perfect example of irreducible complexity that I couldn’t explain with evolution by natural selection with even the most inventive just-so stories.

I’ve been a fan of your writing for many years. Decades really – I’m getting old!

Thanks and Best Regards,

Stu Harris

That is pretty close to what I read in the articles about generating an eye. The light sensitive spot is a given; and as far as I can see, the rest is intelligent design: that is, one selects for characteristics that lead to a socketed eye. Let me hasten to add that I have not spent the requisite hours to examine the computer programs in great detail. I am prepared to be persuaded that the selection is fair with each step leading to a more survivable individual with more offspring; but my examination did not leave me with that impression, and that was Sir Fred's opinion regarding several evolutionary steps: they led to something useful, but they were not themselves steps that increased survival. Fred's hypothesis was that some entity, somewhere in the Galaxy, was designing useful proteins and other organics and seeding the Galaxy with them. He did not speculate on the nature of that entity.

His point was that if you know where you are going, it is easier to get there. If you know that you want a performance of Swan Lake, it's easier to find evolutionary steps that get you there. But that, by definition, is intelligent design, just as if you want to breed border collies you aren't relying on chance to get the kind of dog you want.

My own view is that we don't know enough about any of this to have the kind of confidence that either Dawkins or the theologicals display, and a little humility about the universe and our place in it might be more appropriate. And in any event, what they do in Resume Speed, Kansas, is not as much my business as some of the awful idiocies that take place daily in the Los Angeles School District.


I sent a copy of Ed Hume's warning to the subscribers. This was a reply:

Re: A Chaos Manor Trojan Warning (2)

At 04:49 PM 7/7/2008, you wrote:

(Monster.com, etc sweep)

Note that people who have listed security clearances on these sites should be especially wary.

which may be important advice.




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This week:


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Tuesday,  July 8, 2008

 It just keeps getting better

DHS insanity!



Of course they could cut right to Baron Harkkonen's "heart plugs".

Chris C


DHS pushing for mandatory Taser bracelets to be worn by airline passengers?!

<http://www.washingtontimes.com/weblogs/aviation-security/2008/Jul/01/want-some-torture-with-your-peanuts/ >

-- Roland Dobbins

I think one can dismiss this particular idea. Surely it will never happen--

Incidentally, I am part of the "far out ideas" group that advises DHS research, and I never heard of any such idea.

And see below:


Joanne Dow comments on the Trojan warning:

I've been surprised the were clean for so long. They are incredibly enticing targets for identity theft hacking.

Speaking of which, do NOT EVER order something and pay by credit card on your cell phone while out shopping or eating in a restaurant. This came up in a discussion of hands free cell-phone laws. A couple people had been present and heard enough information to use another person's credit card illegally. They people nearly yelled the information out so that everybody around them could hear.

Identity theft is a serious problem and a very serious inconvenience. There is no sense making it easy for the crooks. I don't believe in giving crooks an even chance.

Incidentally, re hands free cell-phone usage - it's no guarantee that accident rates will go down. Do not use them while driving at speed. I've found that radios in the car are OK if you are in stop and go traffic. But at speed they acquire a little more attention than is strictly safe except for the most trivial conversations. Even talking to other passengers is dangerous if it's more than really light banter. That's nearly 50 years as a ham and over 25 years as a ham with a radio in the car speaking.



SUBJECT: A Chaos Manor Trojan Warning

Hi Jerry, and thanks for your "heads up".

I started reading about evil-doers "harvesting" stuff from sites like Monster.com for "spear phishing" messages a few months ago. The exploits are nasty, but they are just another form of "social engineering".

My take on this is that everyone should look at anything that arrives in their e-mail in box with a jaundiced eye. Anything you count on seeing in an e-mail can be spoofed (from, reply to, etc). Consider things like:

-- (If it's a spoofed "from") Does the message read like it came from the person you know? We all have unique writing styles that acute readers learn to recognize. -- If it's not from someone you know, don't think too hard about hitting "delete". -- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. -- View the message headers and do a "reveal source" to see the exact URLs any embedded links embedded in HTML e-mail might invite you to click on. The most popular disguised domain names in my junk mail seem to point to web servers in .RU, .CN and domains from other faraway places.

The business you describe is only lucrative if users are dumb enough to fall for the hook attached to the message (or too busy or stressed-out to be careful).

Taking a big step back from the issue you alerted your readers to, there has always been a truth about on line activity. If you don't want bad people to learn something about you, don't ever post any personal information anywhere you are not convinced is truly private between you and the company behind the site you're providing personal info. Read the site privacy policies. If you don't like those policies, don't post your info there.

Regards, Karl Strieby

Good advice. I have avoided the disasters so far. Common sense helps.


On national control of education

This is a result of an interchange:

Obviously we all agree that there ought to be standards and the issue is at what level said standards are derived/implemented. Taking your question to the extreme and applying this to the licensing of doctors or food handling or anything else that can affect your community, then it's obvious that there is a point at which it is very much your business what my community does.

My position is that the level is determined by qualifications. If we ought to license teachers because we worry about what children are learning and how they learn it, the same standards that apply to teachers *certainly* should apply to a body that can determine the curriculum. Thus if it can be shown that licensing of teachers must occur at the State level to be effective, the same argument must also apply to school boards *if* you assume they can dictate curriculae.

Gary Alston

We may agree there ought to be standards, but I do not agree that the Columbia University College of Education should set them for all the school districts in the country. Your view is that you know better -- whether because you are better educated or just plain smarter. Mine is that I'd rather trust the curriculum to local school boards and that includes allowing them to set the credential requirements. If some school district feels that a retied USAF sergeant with no degree who spent 20 years teaching math to USAF recruits has sufficient credentials and doesn't require him to go take the Mickey Mouse education courses that are the essence of modern education credentials, I cheer.

I don't concede your right to set the standards for my schools. Nor do I expect you to pay for them. And yes, I understand that this guarantees some bad schools. The remedy is to elect better school boards. And to have small enough districts that there is some connection between the taxpayers, parents, and the school board.


Algebra, and its Teaching (or Not)


From many years ago, when I was about 22, I Tutored the 16-year old Sister, of a fellow Analog reader, near Drumheller, Alberta. He was baffled by her problems with Albebra, because she was already _Teaching_ her very own Classes in Ballet, Saturday mornings, in Drumheller.

First Tuesday evening, we two sat down, and I got her to open her Algebra book at the Problems currently assigned.

I took the first one, wrote down the "Givens" that the Word-description provided, and wrote down a Letter for each variable, and for each constant. Set up the Equation, with all-letters, moved stuff around til only the sought-variable was on the left side, and substituted-in the numbers, and solved. She had answered Yes, to all queries as to her understanding of what I was doing.

Yes, you guessed it: I turned the page over, and handed her the pencil, with a request to work the problem thru, herself.

Got a Deer in the Headlights, look.

After a few minutes of explaining, one by one what I had done, and why, the penny dropped: She had not memorized the definitions and operations of Theroretical Algebra. You know, the stuff in the First Chapter of a densely-written Text, or in the first two chapters of even a loosely written Text.

It took three sessions, Tues, Thurs, Tues, evenings, before she had all those basics, and how to use them, memorized. We then branched-out, into Science, and even Language and Literature, because the Tools for Solving Problems do work across the boundaries of Math, Science, and Language...

Found out that the Teacher was certified in Social Studies and in Language. He worked-out the 'canned' examples, on the Blackboard, and never branched-out into anything that was not already worked-out in the Textbook!

I wonder how many Students ability and enjoyment, of Algebra, was ruined by the 'teaching' done,, by that Mathematical Incompetent.

Some years later, I had an experienced Rodman, who had 3 years working for another Surveyor. The Rodman could not work Survey Notes with a Scientific Calculator in hand. He could, however, enter the numbers into a Computer Program, and get the answers printed out. I could not teach him how to hand-work Survey Notes, if the Computer was not working, because he not only did not understand Algebra, his regular Math Skills were very poor.

Yet he had a High School Diploma. I checked, with the Calgary School Board, and it turned-out that the Grade 12 Math he graduated-with, was a watered-down version of the Grade 9 Math that he had not passed! Yes, the Pass-em-On Bunch, had passed that hard-working young man into the world, without enuf math skills to figure out his paycheque, and also not enough math skills to work out his own Income Tax Return.

The Arithmetic Problem, to make it more general, is a result of Teachers escaping from the boredom of the Addition and Times-Tables Drills, along with their Subtractoion and Division Tables siblings! Lacking that solid base, Students have Problems with advanced Math, Problems with Algebra and with Geometry, and with Trigonometry, and later with the Calculus.

So, how do we rig up Games that will require mastering the little knows, before advancing past the Medium Knows, to the challenges of the Calculus, and the dancing Tensors?


Neil Frandsen

There are two major issues in teaching algebra: finding good teachers, and for whom is it necessary? Who should be required to take algebra? Everyone?


Re: Algebra is responsible for most dropouts from high school

Remember, according to the LAUSD A-G Curriculum plan--by a board approved measure on a 6-1 vote (with only Board Member Marguerite LaMotte voting no)--ALL students are now required to be on a college prep track. That includes not only algebra fundamentals, but advanced algebra as well. And yet the school administration expresses "shock and dismay" that drop out rates are on the rise. Just how stupid are these people (or what is their hidden agenda)? I have my B.S. in Biology, and took all kinds of math in school, but I've found it of minimal applicability for any job I've ever had.

Greg Hemsath

I have no objection and indeed I would encourage algebra as a required high school subject for a college prep curriculum; but I question whether more than half the population (I would but that at more like 30%) should be burdened with college prep and symbol manipulation. Some students need training in useful skills.


Algebra & Math

Jerry I had to teach myself algebra because my high school teacher said I was not capable of learning it so this subject is a very sore point for me. They pushed me into a practical math class for my second year in high school and because the teacher there taught algebra type functions in a different way than the collage prep stream I was able to get a handle on it. You literally can not perform any job function above the lowest grade menial labor without true comprehension of algebra. Building complex SPC spreadsheets to graph quality control data can not be done without algebra and if I did not know how the math functions work I would still be a mechanic or maintenance man instead of the companies MIS person that programs all the software for everyday transactions and SPC charting.

For me the reason so many fail at basic algebra is the way it is taught. A very large percentage of those who fail would not do so if the operations and functions were described in a more practical form. It has to be how it is being taught, not that algebra itself is to difficult for them to learn because it is really very simple once the basic concepts are understood. So what we really need is a teacher that can find ways or be taught ways of learning that are more understandable by the students. Now the teachers only put out the standard program and if the student does not get it they put them in the ditch digger category and force them to drop out one way or another so they do not have to be bothered with them.

Because I was there and lived it I feel for every potentially bright kid that gets forced out just because he/she encountered a teacher not mentally flexible enough to find a way to get the child over or through a comprehension problem point. For me once I encountered a teacher that understood where I was having a problem I was able to get the rest of it from my dad and grandfather to the point that those who once were considered my mental superiors by the teachers now come to me on a regular basis to get jobs done requiring algebra that they are unable to figure out in calculus or trig. My big discovery was that algebra and the others are all very basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It is only how you nest them in the calculation that makes the difference. Even calculus and trig functions can be stretched out and expressed in algebraic format to make them easier to understand and in a spreadsheet this is the most practical way to do the job.

So once again the problem really is not that the children are incapable of learning, it is that the teachers are not willing to teach in a manner that enables the children to learn.

-- James Early

Good teachers can teach at least some rudiments of algebra to IQ 90 students, and bad teachers can muck up teaching it to IQ 120 students, but algebra is symbol manipulation par excellance, and the left side of the Bell Curve has problems grasping the concepts. Jaime Escalante managed to teach advance algebra and even calculus to a number of students, by using a good bit of drill and rote learning; one does wonder if that much effort had gone into teaching shop mechanics would it have done more good?

I disagree with your last sentence: some children just don't learn algebra, and pounding it into their heads by rote does not seem to be a good use of their time or of the teacher's. Some people don't need to lean algebra.

This craze for "a world class university prep education" for all is a form of madness and a direct rejection of common sense.


valcent biodiesel

From the Valcent products website at


"During a 90 day continual production test, algae was being harvested at an average of one gram (dry weight) per liter. This equates to algae bio mass production of 276 tons of algae per acre per year. Achieving the same biomass production rate with an algal species having 50% lipids (oil) content would therefore deliver approximately 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year."

"As a comparative, food crop such as soy bean will typically produce some 48 gallons oil per acre per year and palm will produce approximately 630 gallons oil per acre per year. In addition, the Vertigro Bio Reactor System is a closed loop continuous production system that uses little water and may be built on non arable lands."

Jerry, you may recall that in our discussion regarding ethanol production, I suggested using non arable land in the sunbelt states to grow ethanol production crops using hydroponics technology. There are many elements of my plan in the Valcent process; hydroponics, non arable lands, sunbelt states. The difference is that he is producing a vegetable oil suitable for biodiesel production. This is actually superior to ethanol production; not only is the carbon sequestration rate superior, but the product can be used in diesel engines today, without modification. This will be of great interest to commercial truckers paying $5 a gallon for Saudi Arabian diesel.

It is not yet clear what those 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year will cost us; but this may represent a workable solution. Non-arable sunbelt state land is both plentiful and cheap; and water requirements are minimal. Once the processes are developed, it seems likely that the plant could be automated. That would result in low manpower costs. And greenhouses are a mature and relatively simple technology; it's not anywhere near the same degree of complexity as building an oil refinery, or a nuclear power plant. There should be no major reason why biodiesel produced in this manner can't be considerably less expensive than conventional diesel fuel.

Once again, America demonstrates the ability to do what America does best: invent the technology that changes the world. We did it with the assembly line, we did it with the telephone, we did it with food production, we did it with the computer, we did it with the internet. Now, we're doing it with energy production.

The future can be bright. All we have to do is implement it.

Regards, Charlie

I once did the math on biodiesel but that was long ago. Technologies are better noe. I need to look into this, but it will have to wait a while.

But yes, Survival With Style is still possible. Whether the politicians will allow it is another matter.


Brain chemistry doesn't affect depression...maybe

Dr. Pournelle,

I ran across this article off of Digg.com :

Head fake How Prozac sent the science of depression in the wrong direction http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe

The gist of the article is that Prozac doesn't help depression by altering brain chemistry as has been commonly believed. It actually appears to be promoting the healing of brain cells, which fixes the depression. When I read the article I thought about the trauma your particular brain has recently been through, and maybe there is something that can be done to help your brain recover faster; excercise, perhaps or a slight change in diet.

As a fan, I'd like you to recover swiftly.

-- A

-- :q :q! :wq :w :w! :wq! :quit :quit! :help help helpquit quit quithelp :quitplease :quitnow :leave :shit ^X^C ^C ^D ^Z ^Q QUITDAMMIT ^[:wq

Interesting. I should look into this. First I heard.


Following is the end of an exchange of emails:

Re Torture


I'm not arguing about the existence of compulsion. I'm wondering about what its utility curve looks like. How much incremental truth do we get for incremental compulsion? I'm not going to "haggle about the price" without knowing what I'm getting for it.

My guess would be that a small amount of compulsion pays off big -- enough to ensure the appearance of those witnesses with no special reason to avoid the courtroom. After this low-hanging fruit is captured, I'd expect that the effects of increased compulsion are relatively small, since we start moving into the population of folks who have compelling reasons to avoid honest testimony.

It ought to be possible to discover the shape of the curve and the circumstances under which different levels of compulsion are likely to pay off. Some of these insights can no doubt be capitalized upon without straining our legal system. No doubt our current practices are far too lax in some cases and far too strict in others.

-- Robert

Getting that utility curve would be difficult (both in experimental design and ethically), but it sure would be useful.


US removes uranium from Iraq,


"The last major remnant of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program - a huge stockpile of concentrated natural uranium - reached a Canadian port Saturday to complete a secret U.S. operation that included a two-week airlift from Baghdad and a ship voyage crossing two oceans.

The removal of 550 metric tons of "yellowcake" - <snip>


Yellowcake? I thought Valerie Plame's husband said Saddam didn't have any yellowcake! Well, the article explains that, and a bit more.



Shocking Bracelet - Urban Legend? 

Dr. Pournelle:

In regards to the 'shocking bracelet' for all airline passengers story, one comment on the blog says it is all false:

By: S&Tspokesman <http://www.washingtontimes.com/users/S&Tspokesman/

Shocking, but False

Sometimes it just amazes me how these stories evolve. Let me start off by saying that the Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate nor TSA have been pursuing shock bracelets for airline passengers as alleged by the Washington Times Blog.

This allegation stemmed from a misleading video posted on the Lamberd Website which depicts an ID bracelet that would contain identifying information as well as the ability to stun the wearer. The company claims to connect use of such a device to DHS and TSA, but no discussions between these agencies has ever taken place.

This all originated from a meeting held two years ago with a private company representative (not Lamberd) who proposed bracelet technology in response to the TSA's desire to find less-than-lethal means to detain an apprehended suspect.

The bracelet was never intended to replace boarding passes, contain ID information or be worn by all passengers as asserted in the Lamberd video and discussed in the Washington Times Blog.

The hypothetical use of the bracelet would have been for transporting already apprehended prisoners and detainees at prisons and border patrol facilities, and DHS was looking to see if there were potential air travel applications for apprehended suspects.

This concept was never funded or supported by the DHS or TSA and hasn't even been discussed for two years. The letter circulating throughout the blogosphere from Paul Ruwaldt was not addressed to Lamberd and merely states the DHS was interested in learning more about the technology. Neither side followed up.

DHS/TSA does NOT support the asserted use and has not pursued the development of such technology.

July 8, 2008 at 5:08 p.m.

Regards, Rick Hellewell


ID vs Evolution 

Dr. Pournelle,

I know that you are growing tired of this discussion, but I have the answer that all the hundreds of others have missed. :-) When I read your initial post seemingly in favor of ID, I was shocked and nearly left the site in disgust. However, I pushed through and realized you believed pretty much the same thing that I do. If God is real, clearly he was smart enough to invent evolution, gravity, atomic theory, and all the other rules that govern this universe. That argument makes perfect sense to me and I fail to understand my most Christians don't embrace it. I do not think what you believe is the same thing as Intelligent Design. I have never heard/read anything remotely close from a true ID adherent. They tend to be as rabidly anti evolution in any form as the Darwinists are rabidly anti ID/Creationism. I don't know what you call the camp you and I reside in, but it is not ID.

I do understand and agree with your argument against central control of curricula. That is yet another reason we home school.

Regards, Chris Dunbar

I never claimed to be a spokesperson for ID. On the other hand, Niven's Law states that there is no cause so good or noble that it will not attract fuggheads; and the fuggheads will get all the press.  I suspect that's the case with Intelligent Design. It has some friends it could well do without.

I continue to say that I don't find it easy to believe that the blind workings of chance caused a blob of Big Bang Stuff to create Carl Sagan, perform Swan Lake and Beethoven's Ninth, and write the Kama Sutra, but perhaps I have insufficient imagination. Or faith. The one thing I am sure of is that I am not at all sure of how it all came about.







This week:


read book now


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Justice Breyer Is Among Victims in Data Breach Caused by File Sharing, 


"Sometime late last year, an employee of a McLean investment firm decided to trade some music, or maybe a movie, with like-minded users of the online file-sharing network LimeWire while using a company computer. In doing so, he inadvertently opened the private files of his firm, Wagner Resource Group, to the public.

"That exposed the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of about 2,000 of the firm's clients, including a number of high-powered lawyers and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer."






Dr. Pournelle,

This is in reference to your ongoing discussion of algebra teaching in school, in particular whether it's even necessary to teach to the large number of students who are going to go to work in the real world, doing real hands-on things. My uncle, a Ph.D. chemist (among other degrees) is also a master plumber, and spends a great deal of his time teaching the basic set of courses that a traditional apprentice plumber learns. These apprentice plumbers learn a very great deal of algebra and geometry, quite ably, especially when you don't tell them that's what they're learning when they find out that they need to be able to figure out what diameter pipe they'll need for certain pressures, etc. My experience with apprentice carpenters and electricians is similar for those who have been through a traditional trades program. Actually this supports both positions, understood properly. A practical skills program is always compatible with what we might think of as symbol manipulation/college prep, assuming that those in the know are allowed to construct the thing without interference from the chattering class. Ask any shop teacher whether some basic knowledge of the properties of triangles and circles helps their students.

Best regards, and my best wishes for your continuing good progress with your health Kip

I still wonder if something less symbol manipulative than algebra wouldn't do the job: even the ability to look things up in tables? But that is pure guessing. I never had any problems with algebra, but I know plenty of reasonably smart people who did. Including almost all the girls I knew in high school. Or were they pretending?


Jerry, I don't often disagree with you, but on this subject, I think I must.While I do think that most, if not all of the Bell Curve above the 55-60th percentile is capable of Algebra, etc., I feel that everyone above about IQ 90 would benefit from learning how to set up problems as symbols and being able to manipulate the symbols to provide a solution. I am not just thinking of the classic word problems found in grade school, but some of the underlying mathematical laws used to solve them.

At some point, the child must be taught that one can always use the Associative Law and where it is appropriate and where it is not. By the same token, I do not think that the average student needs to factor polynomials, but I think that he/she should know that they exist and what to look for on the graph. He/she should know what the zero intercepts are and something what they mean. As you can tell, I also believe that graphing equations is helpful in everyday life. (At least being able to look at a graph and understand what it is telling you.) I would think that Freshman year in High School is a good time to start to teach at least the Laws of Math and "How to Apply Them". I also think that Trig. should be taught this way in High School. Teach the Laws, Sin, Cos, and Tan of an angle, and how to use them. Can you imagine a carpenter trying to cut a diagonal piece of wood for a fine cabinet without being able to use this? Again, these should be taught these as rules, not principles. The same goes for Geometry. Teach that there are congruent triangles and similar triangles, and what the conditions are for each.

I am making such a fuss over this because I have found that these underlying principles are not being taught in the schools today. That being said, I would agree that the underlying curricula should be set by the local School Board. The School Board has to realize that the students of today will be much more mobile (as in many more jobs, not necessarily up the income scale) than students in the past. I do know that Plumbers, Electricians and Carpenters require a through knowledge of the application of the laws of the above Math subjects. I am sure that there are other trades. Maybe we need to find some 1916 High School math books?

Glad to hear that you are feeling more productive, keep it up,

John Vogt

Well, I am not really going to assert that I know where the cutting off point it; but I do believe that high schools should be set to allow 80-90% of the pupils to get a high school diploma; and requiring algebra for graduation would, on your assumptions, condemn 40% to failure to get a diploma.

I can think of a lot of ways to improve schools, but in general when I do I am thinking of how to make them better for bright kids.


Why Johnny Patrello couldn't do math

Dr. Pournelle --

You may have read this two years ago when it was printed in the LA Times.

Germane to the your current comments on the teaching and the need for teaching of algebra, I thought you might want to read it,


I benefited from learning algebra in the eighth and tenth grades, but then I memorized my 12x12 multiplication tables from the addendum to a children's dictionary when I was six.

My New Jersey high school AP calculus teacher also taught the remedial math classes. Mr. Milbut was a craggy, former Marine inter-service boxing contender. He treated all his students in a similar vein, calling us donkeys and dummies. If anything, he was more considerate to those for whom math did not come as a grace from heaven.

He required us to tutor those remedial students who most needed help. It was a humbling experience to work with students my age who desperately wanted to earn their requisite math credits and graduate with their friends, get a job, make a life for themselves.

Only fractions and least common denominators stood in their way.

I've never believed that every child should be taught algebra or that every young person should attend college.

This Lake Woebegone mania is destroying America.

I know you had your disagreements with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., but his dystopian vision of "Harrison Bergeron" has frighteningly materialized.

Sometimes the best we can do is stand with a finger in the dyke until rain stops.

JJ Brannon

Harrison Bergeron was good enough to excuse any of Vonnegut's other sins.

Motivation is a powerful tool. LAUSD does not seem to be able to do that in a great number of cases.


Subj: Education: Grounds for hope? Louisiana confounds the Science Thought Police


>>To the chagrin of the science thought police, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law an act to protect teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues such as global warming, human cloning, and yes, evolution and the origin of life.<<

Who would have thought that Louisiana -- *Louisiana* of all places! -- would be out at the forefront of the attempt to restore the distinction between science and ideology?

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com

Well, I was born in Louisiana. Didn't spend a lot of time there, though.


Computer Service at a Premium


I ran across this story http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,2845,2324210,00.asp  about a PI license being required to service computers. For litigation it might make sense, but it really going to reduce service/support options.

-Mark D

Incredible! But Texas has demonstrated in the FLDS case that at least some part of Texas government finds "caring" more important than something like freedom. Astonishing. But this sounds like old fashioned job protection.


Thermal Solar Power Gets Hot

Technology that focuses the sun's rays to create heat-and generate electricity-is attracting growing investment by utilities


Bill Shields

At current oil prices, ground based solar becomes a great deal more interesting. Ed Begley Jr. estimates that his investment in roof top solar and batteries is now actually beginning to pay off after 18 years of doing it more as a demonstration than for any economic reasons.


US removes uranium from Iraq 

Just as a comment to your correspondent "Ed"; he has drawn a very wrong conclusion. Plame did not say there was no yellowcake there, he said there was no evidence that Saddam tried to buy any *more* yellowcake. The stuff that was there was well known to be there, and there was no evidence the existing stuff was being used in any program at all.

In fact, if memory serves me right, the existing stuff was in containers sealed by the IAEC. It would be interesting to know if the seals had been tampered with.

Way too much attention has been paid to this whole episode I think.


Trying to figure out what Saddam was doing is a waste of time. Incidentally, Wilson's report was taken at the Company as more in support of the notion that Saddam was fishing to buy uranium ore than that he was not (the forged documents that later became famous didn't exist when Wilson took his journey to Niger where he in his own words sat in cafe's and drank sweet mint tea).

Saddam was running a whole series of bluffs. He had his own officers fooled into thinking he had a nuclear and biological program and that he had stocks of chemical weapons. It was a rather foolish bluff, and it got him hanged; but apparently he really did believe that the US wouldn't come in and wring his neck. After all, he was our man in the contest with Iran. When he finally figured it out, it was a bit late.

And of course too much attention has been paid to the whole episode.

You may or may not recall that I thought invading Iraq was a terrible folly, and I did all I could to prevent it. Clean up Afghanistan yes, but do not get bogged down in Mesopotamia. Clearly they did not take my advice in Washington. After reading Feith's book I understand some of what happened. Intellectual wonkery almost always leads to bad results. Rumsfeld and Feith were the epitome of wonkery. It goes to show that being bright doesn't always mean making smart decisions.

Having embarked on what was a predicable disaster -- Mesopotamia was the graveyard of more than one Roman (both Western and Byzantine) Army, and only the Turks managed to both conquer and pacify the region -- there was this frantic activity in Washington to make excuses. We meant well. We didn't know. We thought Saddam was a real threat to us and to Israel. We can win in six weeks and be out in a year. I voted to authorize the invasion but I really knew better, and you all lied to me. I sit on the Intelligence Committee and I bought off on the reports, but I was lied to by someone in the Company or maybe in MI 5 or maybe by Curve Ball or something; I sure wasn't wrong to vote for invasion, now, was I?

The notion that the world can be perfected by having the right policy papers seems endemic with neoconservatives. Of course neoconservatives, many of them, were Trotskyites at one time. Yon can blame our disastrous Middle East policy on wonkery; just as you can blame the bad but not as disastrous (for us) Balkan policy on wonkery. The party doesn't matter when the wonks get in control.




CURRENT VIEW    Wednesday


This week:


read book now


Thursday, July 10, 2008

algebra, trades, and entropy

Dr. Pournelle,

I apologize if this is long, I have 3 relevant examples for questions you have asked recently.

First, you asked if look-up tables can be used profitably for the education of tradesmen. Louisiana and Texas actually have been running this experiment for some decades now. Louisiana's licensing tests are notorious in the trades, and typically require 2 or more attempts to pass for many, especially for those who have not had a traditional apprenticeship or training background. Texas' practices are quite a bit more lax: I worked summers in college as a pipefitter/welder, and, being originally from a plumber's family in Louisiana, was definitely not impressed. The license exams in Texas for industrial pipefitters are quite literally open book. The result in Texas is that Kellog-Brown-Root (Lyndon Johnson's in-laws) and Haliburton have finally admitted the obvious, and are replacing the trade apprenticeships that they helped destroy by funding trade programs in the community colleges.

There's a secondary factor in Texas, and now Louisiana (after Katrina and Rita), and that's illegal immigration. Combined with lax licensing, this has created a classic race-to-the-bottom in the construction trades in Texas, with essentially all private homes constructed by illegal or poorly-trained, black-market labor. Thus, as you might expect, even expensive private homes built in the last 30 years are essentially worthless. Finding a plumber in Texas who knows what "sweating copper" means is well-nigh impossible, and all the gods have mercy if you have an old house with iron pipes and lead collars. Those of us from border states are laughing a bit at the fact that illegal immigration only became a priority when day-laborers started showing up on street corners in New York.

Finally, with regard to entropy. My field of study is statistical mechanics, and my best answer to the questions you've been asking is that, for non-equilibrium systems, we don't actually have a microscopic explanation for entropy. Boltzmann's limiting law holds only for steady-state and equilibrium conditions, as formulated. Since non-equilibrium systems can be formulated in an infinite number of ways, it's so far proved impossible to define microscopic entropy in a closed form. Basically, Boltzmann's form diverges term-by-term for any of the non-equilibrium systems we can solve far from equilibrium. In cosmology, for example, many of the approaches can be reasonably understood as starting from different assumptions about the local nature of entropy, with inflation and so on following as a natural consequence depending on which convergence criteria you decide you want to enforce. It's even more frustrating than it sounds to outsiders, since we know macroscopically from thermodynamics that the entropy must be evolving in the way that the 2nd law postulates, but we've not found any general results yet that gives anyone broad confidence in the answer. Needless to say, it's a hot topic, and may yet result in a Nobel or two for someone.

Best, Kip

Thanks. Interesting. I had surmised that the entropy question would come out about as you said. And one hopes that apprenticeship programs will return.  A nation has to give all its citizens a career path.


Computer Service at a Premium

Dr Pournelle

The article <http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,2845,2324210,00.asp>  that says Texas requires computer techs to hold PI licenses feels wrong.

First, the article is dated 30 June 2008 but says "A recently passed law requires that Texas <http://www.extremetech.com/topic/0,2944,t=Texas&s=201,00.asp>  computer-repair technicians have a private-investigator license". Ain't no such animal as a recently passed law in Texas. Not this year. Texans know the damage that gov't can do, so we let them meet for only 140 days and only in odd numbered years. That's right. The Texas legislature is not in session this year.

Second, Texas laws are slated to take effect 01 September of the year in which they are enacted. Which means last year. I cannot recall an exception to this effective date. (If you chase the link to a strange new law <http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/80R/billtext/html/HB02833F.htm>  in the article, you will find "SECTION 33. This Act takes effect September 1, 2007." QED)

Much ado about nothing. Musta been a real slow day in the news in Dallas to stir up folks about a problem that does not exist except in the fevered imagination of a third-year law student.

Live long and prosper

h lynn keith

Hmm. Anyone know?


No Country for Young Men.

id=06d65840-0997-482e-a84d-b09b61a7b0e5 >

- Roland Dobbins


'Politicians should be weighed before and after each pronouncement on the world food crisis.'


--- Roland Dobbins


: algae into diesel

Hi, Jerry - did some more research on the algae into biodiesel issue. Here's what I found:

Making algae is really easy; just about anything will work. The vertical hydroponics technology developed by vertigro has many advantages, but isn't necessary for the casual experimenter at home. A common approach is a raceway; water with dissolved nutrients moving along a channel. Failing that, an open pan in the sunlight will work. Algae grows just about anywhere. Check any pier, or the side of any boat.

The lipid content of algae varies by species. Vertigro claims up to 50%, but that is uncommon; 30% to 40% is more common. Vertigro is optimizing their cultures to maximize yield.

Getting the oil out of the algae isn't all that difficult. If you will settle for 70% extraction, that can be achieved with nothing more than a press. Of course, any water left in the algae will also be extracted with the oil, and will promptly separate out. If you want to get the remaining oil, you can bathe the pressed algae in a chemical bath, such as Benzene or Hexane. The oil is dissolved in the chemical solution, and then separated out using a distillation process.

However, there seems to be some varied opinions on whether or not algae oil can be burned as a direct replacement for #2 diesel. Some say it can; others say that a third step, involving treatment with ethanol, is necessary. Also, there doesn't seem to be any clear cut information as to the energy content of algae oil.

I'll continue to research this - there's a ton of information, most of it uncorrelated, much of it conflicting, probably most of it incorrect. I may also have a go at producing algae oil at home; it's certainly simple enough. I should be able to arrive at some rough estimates as to the energy content. Any numbers I come up with will be ballpark in terms of precision, but I suppose that's better than nothing.

Regards, Charlie






CURRENT VIEW    Thursday


This week:


read book now


Friday,  July 11, 2008

LAUSD dropout rates

Dr. Pournelle –

My wife, a teacher at a South LA high school, and I have talked often about the high dropout rates in LAUSD and she has some insight that may be useful to the discussion.

Students at her school regularly enter unprepared for high school. Some read at the elementary school level. Many, possibly most, read below grade level. With such reading abilities it is unreasonable to anticipate successful performance in any course in high school without a reduction in expectations. While it would be more comfortable to think that this situation is only found in the recent immigrants who have limited English, this situation is also found in those students born here and who have spent their entire school life in LAUSD. The fundamentals are not being acquired by students in the early years in too many cases. These students are moving on in school with a foundation of sand upon which to build. With the current emphasis on the immersion method during the first few elementary grades to ensure that students quickly acquire English, many immigrant students do not acquire the fundamentals of arithmetic and subsequent courses do not adapt to make up for this deficit. Students are moved along when they are not ready and finally held accountable at the end of their time in the system. This is not the way to create success and is not fair to both the students and the general public.

LAUSD has a host of other problems. Some teachers, like my wife, are highly competent and dedicated, putting in long hours on not just their teaching but also in other ways to improve the opportunities for the students to learn. The continuum goes all the way down to teachers who do little more than sit at their desks and read the newspaper. The same is true of the administrative personnel where your Iron Law is alive and well. Some work hard in the best interest of the students while others seem, from what I have heard, to be interested primarily in maintaining their own petty fiefdoms. While these continua are not unique to LAUSD, it does seem to me that LAUSD is weighted towards the left side of these curves.

We have often heard of the lack of parental support for education which seems to plague some schools. Certainly some of this is a factor at my wife’s school and while there are parents who are actively involved in the school I imagine that there is not the emphasis that you might find in my middle class suburban community. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are cases where it is the parents who are pressuring their child to drop out of high school. Once their child has acquired sufficient arithmetic and language skills, the families want him to start working to help support the family. While I do not know how often this occurs, it feels like this is not particularly uncommon.

Long ago in a state far away I took Algebra I in the eighth grade. However, the norm was to take Algebra I in the ninth grade. My school district, dysfunctional as it was, tracked students. Those students capable of handling harder course work were guided towards or simply placed into the more demanding courses. Tracking, it seems, is not a popular concept here because it would belittle those students in the less demanding courses. Ironically, some teachers at my wife’s school have traveled the long way around to arrive at tracking, deciding that it is unfair to students to place them in a course for which they are not prepared.

Perhaps this is a small ray of hope but I fear that the cries will rise up that tracking leads to inequality, forgetting Shelling’s words that, “True education makes for inequality; …”. While I believe that some algebra would be a benefit to all students it is clear that all are not capable of a degree of mastery of the subject. Requiring Algebra I to graduate from high school and designing an exit exam which requires an understanding of algebra seems unrealistic and designed to set up some students for failure.

While all students should have access to a first class college preparatory education if they are capable and willing to do the work, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to assume that all students should fall into this category. My bank teller doesn't need a college degree to do that particular job. I'm not at present convinced that all of my bank’s loan officers need a college degree. That being said, I will state unequivocally my belief that it is vital in a democracy to have a well educated populace capable of casting a considered ballot, that there is inestimable value in learning, if for no other reason than to learn, and that such learning should be a continual goal throughout one’s life.

 This learning for the sake of learning should, however, be a personal desire and, if you will, responsibility and not the full responsibility of the community. Learning is something that an individual does. Receiving an education requires at least two people. This will sound flippant to some but illustrates that there is only so much that a school system can do to educate the populace. No teacher is a miracle worker, no matter how competent and dedicated.

The debate about the proper role and functioning of a public education system has been going on for ages. I am certain that my ramblings here will neither end the debate nor solve any of the problems. I do hope that they assist the discussion and plant the seeds of thought.

"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success; the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of the progress of the world." -- Felix Emmanuel Schelling, American educator and scholar (1858-1945).


Report Sees Cost in Some Academic Gains

"In tests of fourth-grade reading from 2000 to 2007, for instance, the scores of the lowest-achieving students increased by 16 points on a 280-point scale, compared with a gain of three points for top-achieving students, according to the study, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization in Washington. "

That's not fair. The top scorers have little room for improvement.

Look at it like a bowling score. A guy with a 100 average needs only a mark or two out of many opens to improve dramatically. A guy who averages 270 has very little chance to improve. He's probably already getting 10 strikes a game.

Mike Boyle


Are we quite certain that what California is calling Algebra 1 is at the same level of abstraction as the courses you and your children took?

For a sample of one I doubt it. I'm mildly tutoring the once reasonably bright daughter of a good friend who fried her brain with drugs when her mother was dying of cancer (horrendous details of what can happen to a pretty blond child in a drug culture omitted) and eventually achieved a GED. At 27 she is taking Algebra 1 at the community college level. The course consists of setting up word problems where the only abstraction is X is the unknown. Everything is straight numerical word problems that can be solved by inspection - the sole object of the course is setting up a word problem.

I have known reasonably bright people who never made the transition from counting numbers to symbols and others not so bright who equally failed that transition but this course requires no such transition.

I have no idea what the course that might be required in California might actually require but if it is anything like the one I mentioned it seems reasonable to me to require it of anyone. Anyone who could make good use of a framing square would be able to do well on the one I'm seeing.

Regards and good health

Clark E Myers



Good evening Dr. Pournelle, I don't know how relevant my opinion will be, I limped through with a "Consumer math" credit in high school. My work since then has been mostly blue collar and I haven't run into a problem that couldn't be expressed arithmetically, with one exception, that I used a TI-35 for, calculating spoke lengths for a set of bicycle wheels. I suspect that a lot of people who took algebra never used it again after school. One (remotely) possible solution would be for a textbook publisher to pile money at the feet of a hard SF writer (who wasn't in cancer recovery) until they agreed to write a math textbook, it would surely be more comprehensible than what the schools are using.

May your remission be indistinguishable from a cure,

Tim Harness.


Another educational issue

Dr. Pournelle;

The ongoing discussion about American education is interesting and thought provoking. I don't think that I am as pessimistic as you are, but then my children are in a small public school district that has a real commitment to education, excellent graduation rates, and strong parental involvement. The jargon of modern teaching leaves me cold and the bureaucracy is bothersome, but the schools appear to be doing a good job. There are a lot of professional in the community (probably from the right side of the curve, as your correspondents would say) and there has not been flight from the public schools. My wife and I purposefully moved here because of the schools.

But... something that the schools lack, from the middle school level and up, are shop classes. When I was in 7th and 8th grades, we did type-setting, metal shop, wood working, basic electricity, and mechanical drawing. I learned skills that I still use today, and I work in a profession on the right side of the curve. Back then the boys did shop and the girls did home economics, which is not enlightened in this day and age, but it seems wrong to not teach some manual/practical skills to all kids.

Jim Thomas


algebra, trades, and entropy

Dr. Pournelle,

I apologize if this is long, I have 3 relevant examples for questions you have asked recently.

First, you asked if look-up tables can be used profitably for the education of tradesmen. Louisiana and Texas actually have been running this experiment for some decades now. Louisiana's licensing tests are notorious in the trades, and typically require 2 or more attempts to pass for many, especially for those who have not had a traditional apprenticeship or training background. Texas' practices are quite a bit more lax: I worked summers in college as a pipefitter/welder, and, being originally from a plumber's family in Louisiana, was definitely not impressed. The license exams in Texas for industrial pipefitters are quite literally open book. The result in Texas is that Kellog-Brown-Root (Lyndon Johnson's in-laws) and Haliburton have finally admitted the obvious, and are replacing the trade apprenticeships that they helped destroy by funding trade programs in the community colleges.

There's a secondary factor in Texas, and now Louisiana (after Katrina and Rita), and that's illegal immigration. Combined with lax licensing, this has created a classic race-to-the-bottom in the construction trades in Texas, with essentially all private homes constructed by illegal or poorly-trained, black-market labor. Thus, as you might expect, even expensive private homes built in the last 30 years are essentially worthless. Finding a plumber in Texas who knows what "sweating copper" means is well-nigh impossible, and all the gods have mercy if you have an old house with iron pipes and lead collars. Those of us from border states are laughing a bit at the fact that illegal immigration only became a priority when day-laborers started showing up on street corners in New York.

Finally, with regard to entropy. My field of study is statistical mechanics, and my best answer to the questions you've been asking is that, for non-equilibrium systems, we don't actually have a microscopic explanation for entropy. Boltzmann's limiting law holds only for steady-state and equilibrium conditions, as formulated. Since non-equilibrium systems can be formulated in an infinite number of ways, it's so far proved impossible to define microscopic entropy in a closed form. Basically, Boltzmann's form diverges term-by-term for any of the non-equilibrium systems we can solve far from equilibrium. In cosmology, for example, many of the approaches can be reasonably understood as starting from different assumptions about the local nature of entropy, with inflation and so on following as a natural consequence depending on which convergence criteria you decide you want to enforce. It's even more frustrating than it sounds to outsiders, since we know macroscopically from thermodynamics that the entropy must be evolving in the way that the 2nd law postulates, but we've not found any general results yet that gives anyone broad confidence in the answer. Needless to say, it's a hot topic, and may yet result in a Nobel or two for someone.

Best, Kip







This week:


read book now


Saturday, July 14, 2008


I think this is worth reading:

A Bipartisan Fix for the Oil Crisis By JOSEPH PETROWSKI July 10, 2008; Page A15

As president of Gulf Oil, New England's largest independent petroleum company, and as someone who has spent his life in and around energy markets, I find the tone and substance of the current debate about our energy policy to be profoundly disappointing.

Partisan sides are using a serious crisis to advance political agendas, create political attack sound bites, and launch hearings to "expose" the culprit. Pick your favorite: speculators, Big Oil, environmentalists, China, India, etc.

This is not leadership.

A fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work, and how an effective government can support the private sector, is delaying remedies that will bring down energy prices now. These remedies are to be found in both supply and demand – and both Democrats and Republicans need to demonstrate their command of this fact. Energy is too important a cornerstone of domestic prosperity and international stability to be used as a debating prop.

To Democrats:

Supply must be increased, and that will require more drilling.

We can responsibly drill. The technology to find, drill and recover oil has evolved tremendously, and careless drillers will fear tort lawyers more than government regulators. The claim that the oil companies are sitting on leases and not drilling defies all logic. With oil at $135 per barrel and drilling rigs renting at $300,000 per day, there are no idle rigs anywhere. Furthermore, economic decline – and war induced by basic resource struggles – are greater threats to the environment and American workers than drilling.

Your claim that any oil we drill for now will not come on line for five years or longer – and will thus have no effect on prices today – is incorrect. Unlike past oil crises, where the spot price of oil (that is, today's price) rose more than forward prices, the oil price for delivery in 2012 is trading at $138 per barrel. The market is sending a clear price signal that our problem is in the future – because we do not have the will to curb demand or increase supply.

How many houses would someone invest in if there were a future guarantee that the price would not decline? It is anticipation of ever-increasing prices that fuels the mania.

The oil market, however, has more than anticipation; it has a well-defined forward price signal. This is a key component of the added $25-$40 per barrel in current oil prices. Congressional hearings and "make it go away" legislation will not stop that. Demonstrate the national will to address the supply and demand issues now and it will.

As forward prices decline, watch how quickly the spot price comes down.

To Republicans:

Efficiency is a huge source of new energy. It is scandalous that we have let the mileage standards decrease over the past 25 years. Whether through mandates or tax policy, active government intervention is needed. Republicans have to stop acting as if the "market" is some pristine state of nature that is not subject to active shaping.

The latest farm bill, ethanol and sugar tariffs, the cost of the Iraq war and Bear Stearns all make that reasoning ring hollow. So when some "free marketeers" attack annual biofuel subsidies of $4 billion, fleet mandates, or government research and development expenditures, it is hard not to view this criticism as at best naïveté, and at worst hypocrisy.

Finally, can we stop with the nonsensical talk of "energy independence," the end of petroleum, and postured, ineffectual boycotts of Exxon Mobil? We cannot, should not and will not be independent in a global economy, and petroleum is not going to disappear.

A more accurate metaphor is the global energy market as a giant bath tub where more withdrawals (Chinese and Indian) are being made every day. The only consistent new supply to that tub is coming from periodically unstable and unfriendly places (Nigeria, Russia, Iran, Venezuela).

Our national interest is to add more energy, use it more efficiently, and diversify its source and type. This will serve to lessen the power of any one choke point (geography, nation or source).

Using market mechanisms and the private sector (admit it, Democrats) alongside an engaged, effective and focused government (admit it, Republicans), true leaders can solve this crisis decisively.

Mr. Petrowski is president of Gulf Oil.

Phil Tharp

Indeed. I have a few quibbles, but this is common sense and ought to get the kind of attention that Pickens, who is advertising his wind scheme without making a lot of his enormouns investments in Texas wind farms, is getting.

I suppose I should add an energy essay to my list of needed works, to join the Education and The Bell Curve essay I am working on. It's discouraging: after all, I wrote a good bit on this just after September 11, 2001, before we squandered a trillion and more on the Iraq War.

As that time I pointed out that for $100 billion -- make it $200 billion if you like -- we can build 100 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants, and have them on line in 5 years (provided that Congress gets many of the legal obstacles out of the way). Those would be a great deal more reliable than the best wind farms; they'd also be cheaper as a system. Wind energy is dispersed, and the energy has to be collected; and it's not reliable for base line power. Nuclear is, according to Access to Energy, the most reliable base line power of any major source. The Japanese and French have certainly found it so.

And yes, I would subsidize hell out of getting the nuclear plants done: much of the costs are government imposed regulations. Let the government help get past those. This is a matter of national security. T Boone Pickens is absolutely correct in his analysis of the seriousness of our problem. We are selling the capital value of the nation to the Middle East. That simply cannot go on.

I have no objection to continued investment in improving ground based solar, and indeed, as my neighbors Ed Begley and Bill Nye (the science guy) keep showing, there may even be some economic gain as well as bragging rights for ground based solar. It can be a pain in the arse, and I have never seen an end-to-end energy analysis that includes making and disposing of the batteries as well as the solar cells, but it looks cool and I know from observation that it works. I'm urging Niven to go solar, in part because it should irritate the hell out of his ultra picky housing association (there are laws exempting solar from such neighborhood association rules and in part because his power is a bit unreliable out where he is. Besides it would be neat. But ground based solar is not going to save us.

Nor will wind. It's not reliable as base power.

On the other hand, Pickens is dead on about natural gas. It can power transportation. As of course can electricity, particularly for the short haul in-city trips that make up a good part (excuse my inexactitude; I really need to collect the statistics) of automobile traffic. Electric cars that can charge at night and do 100 miles before needing recharge can not only work, but be fun: you put a motor on each wheel, no power losses in transmissions and differentials, and astonishing torque. I worked on designs of electric cars in a joint project with RAND back in the 60's and even then it was clear you could make practical and useful electric cars, so long as you didn't insist on great range before recharging.

The simple fact is that the only way to get oil prices down is to increase supply. Actually, a reliable threat to increase supply would burst the bubble and bring oil down to about $100 (some say &75) as soon as the futures speculators see new supplies are in the wind.

As to energy independence, that's an interesting phrase without a lot of meaning. What I mean by energy independence is a way for the US to preserve itself as a nation, without selling all our capital assets like Budweiser to the Middle East; I'd rather spend a trillion in the US than send $900 million to Qatar...

More on this another time; but it's probably the most important problem of our time (assuming we don't expand the war and get more bogged down over there...)


Wind Power article

Hi Jerry,

RE: Wind power and T. Boone Pickens. There was an interesting article on wind power in a recent Globe and Mail posting here:


It has some startling statistics on the viability of wind power.

I'm glad to see you continuing to recover from your illness. All the best.

Murray Dundas





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CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

This week:


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Sunday, July 13, 2008      

Subject: A whole lifetime of whining, 


A whole lifetime of whining:


Talkin' 'bout my generation, alas . . .


=I am not sure that's a fair description, but perhaps.

Success consists of getting what you want. Happiness consists of wanting what you get. Most of us live with combination of that.


Re: Education Trojan Horses 

Over time I've come to view both Darwinists and IDers as dangerous ideologues. Nor do I detect any comprehensive concern for the overall quality of real children's education among the leaders of either group.

I'd even propose the following experiment in three schools, if human experimentation wasn't a declared international war crime (educrats take note).

1. The Darwinist Track for 12 years.

2. The ID/Creationist Track for 12 years.

3. Neither Darwin or Genesis. Just a curriculum that integrates Euclid with AutoCAD and Shakespeare with Word for 12 years.

THEOREM: The graduates of School Three will be the most actively recruited group by employers and universities.


One Detail of What is Wrong With Teacher Tenure

Dr. Pournelle,

This is a visual display of the process needed to remove a tenured teacher from their position:


While this chart is for the New York City schools, it applies elsewhere in New York state, except that there is no Chancellor level, so that is skipped. Note of course, the large amounts of money flowing into the legal arena in order to remove one inept or criminal teacher, and the years of documentation required to get to this point. In the end, many teachers are simply moved to other positions, or put on permanent paid leave just to avoid the drawn out process, and the courts. Alas, not everyone has the money to afford a either private school education for their children, or to stay home and home-school.

Continued warm wishes for a full recovery!

Peter Czora

I have never understood why the American people accepted the notion of teacher tenure. I certainly would not. If a teacher is full of an ideology repugnant to the local school board, why should that teacher be retained? Do they have a right to be paid to preach their own notions?

Leslie Fish has a well known song and it's worth reading or hearing, but here is a verse:

Teacher, teacher, the hole waits outside,
To turn your children into tools for his pride.
He's always scratchin' for a way to come in.
Here comes a pressure group, he's tryin' again.
Teacher, teacher, you know you're alone.
You're boss won't save your skin; he's saving his own.
Nor will the parents help; they'll only condemn.
They want their children taught to be just like them.


Note the last two lines. Of course the parents want their children to be just like them. They're paying for it, too. Why does going through the Columbia University college of education give you the right to overrule the school board and parents? Yet many seem to believe that's true.


What has happened?   I graduated in '70 from Hampden-Sydney College, in rural Virginia, in four years. (Well, six, but two in the USMC.) With perhaps two exceptions that I can think of, all classes were under thirty students, all taught by professors. There was no graduate school and no teaching assistants. There were no remedial courses. Students were assumed to be entirely literate and to know algebra cold. They met both conditions. Arts graduates were required to take two basic science courses. These were the same courses the science majors took, and they were not easy. The school's theory was that late adolescents are not competent to decide what they need to know to be educated adults, and so a very high proportion of courses were required. The computer room, housing an IBM 1130, was open all night, with nobody supervising it: You could go in all alone at three a.m., punch up your deck, run it, debug etc for aw long as you wanted. This was not Harvard. It was a small Presbyterian-affiliated school in the rural South.  

Where do you get that today?


In re why go to college:  


The problem is feminization and Opraization, which are the same thing.

But things are so improved now! Doesn't everyone agree?


iPhone apps store

There are some interesting apps (including voice note-taking and e- book reading) online tonight - you need to upgrade iTunes and then access the store to see them. It certainly looks like a major step toward your pocket computer from Mote. Whrrl looks like it might start a whole new social networking craze!



Iphone 3g dissassembled


Found this link:


Phil Tharp


Subject: The Politics of Can't-Possibly-Do


"Ground Zero is a perfect storm of contemporary American politics. The report cites "19 different governmental entities from every level of government each laying claim to some component of the overall project." And, "Each entity makes daily decisions about their individual projects, but no streamlined process or authority is in place to . . . ensure that each decision is in the best interest of the overall project." This sounds eerily like the 9/11 Commission's assessment of our dis-coordinated national security agencies.

Besides the public players, the report notes "dozens" of family groups representing the victims, plus various community groups. Bowing to another toxic value, the agency promises to still be "inclusive," then complains no one has the authority to decide anything.

That is because productive decision making has fallen as a public value below "being heard." Even being heard is no longer enough. The "stakeholders" have to prevail, somehow assuming that the process – or a complex project like this – will endure endless blows. Meanwhile, construction of the wholly private, 52-story 7 World Trade Center building was done in 2006."

I've been saying from hours after the attack that the only reasonable memorial is an office building. The attempts to build some memorial were certain to be hijacked by idiots who think bad guys are really just misunderstood good guys, and if we all understood each other, we'd all get along. I didn't anticipate the paralysis though.


We address some of this in Escape from Hell (Inferno II)


I had a number of messages regarding Sue's request for a reading list. I have made a reports page and put them here.


The Annual Metro Mooning

'Participants -- who included children with their parents as well as middle-aged adults -- stood on a shoulder of the road parallel to the tracks to show themselves.'


Roland Dobbins  

'Twas a great spectacle. Should be better next year..."


"How can this represent one world, one dream?"

8071102766_pf.html >

- Roland Dobbins







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